the Sørensen family apartment

Reconstruction of the two-room apartment in Viborggade - a 'corridor' flat occupied by the Sørensen family before they moved two streets away to Gammel Kalkbrænderi Vej 

In Copenhagen at the beginning of the 20th century many working families were renting one or two rooms in overcrowded buildings that were crudely subdivided and had few or shared facilities for toilets or washing. Many of those families must have been amazed at the space and privacy they found in the new apartment buildings being constructed around the city or in social housing if they were lucky enough to be allocated a new apartment.

This process - ordinary working families moving from renting rooms to renting a complete apartment - and the improvement in living conditions of a fairly typical working-class Copenhagen family - is shown at the amazing Arbejdermuseet - the worker’s museum - in Rømersgade near Israels Plads in Copenhagen. A large section of the display shows the home and much about the life of the Sørensen family who lived in Copenhagen in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Peter Martin Sørensen was a general labourer and he and his wife Karen Marie had eight children. Through the main part of their married life they lived in a number of small apartments moving fourteen times before moving to Viborggade in Østerbro where they had a single living room which was heated by a stove and was also the only bedroom and a small kitchen with a range and a sink. These rooms opened off the common staircase so there was no separate front door and little chance of escaping if there had been a fire.

In 1915, with five of their children still living at home, the family moved two streets south to an almost-new two-room apartment at 58 Gammel Kalkbrænderi Vej which survives. It is a purpose-built apartment just below Norhavn station and just the other side of the railway to the Nordhavn Basin which had opened as an extension of the port facilities in 1904. Many of the men in the street must have worked in the docks although most would have been employed on piece rate with irregular and very insecure work.


58 Gammel Kalkbrænderi Vej - one of a pair of matching apartment buildings at the east end of the street. Each front door gave into a lobby with the main staircase and at each level a separate apartment on each side so in this photo it shows the four large windows of the four front living rooms of four separate apartments at each level. Behind the front room was a bedroom and a narrow kitchen both with windows out to the courtyard and from the kitchen there doors out onto the back service or second staircase. 

Peter Sørensen worked at the Fortuna distillery, first as a delivery man although he was to rise to a much more responsible and important job tasting the herbs used in mixing the snaps.  His son Kristian, then 26 years old, worked at the Free Port, and his daughters Anna (21) Yrsa (19) and Olga (17) were in domestic services while their sister Karen, a year older than Kristian, did not work but helped run the home. It must have been these regular incomes that allowed the family to rent a much better and much more secure long-term home. 

In the new apartment they had a main living room to the street and towards the courtyard a single bedroom and a narrow kitchen with a range and a sink and there was a doorway out onto the back staircase … a typical Copenhagen arrangement. When they first moved to number 58, the toilet was in the yard but at some stage an indoor toilet was constructed off the back staircase. There was a wash stand in the bedroom and when anyone wanted a bath, they would have gone to the local public bath house.

It must have been crowded for seven people but better than any place they seem to have lived before. 

Three of the children never married and continued to live with their parents and they stayed on at number 58 after Peter and Karen died. In fact the family retained the apartment until December 1989 when Yrsa Sørensen, then in her 90s,  went into residential care.

The family rarely bought new furniture and only replaced something if it was beyond repair so in 1989 the flat was barely different from its appearance in 1915 and it was at that stage that the family gave the complete contents of the apartment to the museum … an incredible and unique bequest. The museum even acquired the doorways and the floor boards which over the years had been varnished but only around the main furniture.  For some museums their displays of furniture in a ‘typical’ worker’s house has to be pieced together from lots of different collections and purchases but here is the complete contents of a genuine and a very real Copenhagen apartment.

Arbejdermuseet, Rømersgade 22, 1362 Copenhagen K